To say Romania’s record in the World Cup since its inception in 1930 is poor would be deemed by many as an understatement; for the most part at least.
While the majority of their performances in the competition have left a lot to be desired, a golden period of success throughout the 90’s – culminating in reaching the quarter final stage in 1994 – have meant the Tricolorii have their own significant piece of history embedded into football’s most famous tournament, thanks in no small part to arguably their greatest ever player.
A number 10 with the ingenuity, creativity and flair indicative of the position, Gheorghe Hagi inspired a nation and generation to places they have failed to been eclipsed ever since, as the diminutive magician dazzled for Romania in the USA during the 1994 World Cup.
Garnering the aforementioned tag as both a reference to his homeland and similarity to the Argentinian great, Hagi stylistically was very much in the same ilk of Diego Maradona. A left footed attacker with the grace to drift past opponents at will, an eye for goal and a true craftsman when it came to his set pieces, there was also a steely determination underneath the exterior as the Romanian great forged an illustrious playing career.
While representing the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona, Hagi’s club career is most fondly remembered for his time before and after Spain. Earning two Golden Boots for Sportul Studentesc before his move to Steaua Bucharest prior to the 1986/87 season, Hagi would win three consecutive Romanian league titles and a UEFA Super Cup before departing for the Santiago Bernabeu.
Hagi’s career took him then to Real Madrid and Barcelona via Brescia, but after failing to settle at any of them, he soon found a home at Turkish side Galatasaray in 1996. Four Turkish league titles, a UEFA Cup and UEFA Super Cup later, Hagi hung up his boots in 2001, before stints managing Galatasaray and Romania among others.
It was playing Romania’s national team as an 18-year-old in 1983 all the way to 2000, however, that Hagi left his mark on football. The seven-time Romanian Player of the Year is second in their all-time appearance list and joint-first highest goalscorer, but it was his part in Romania’s golden years of of 90’s that stands him above the rest. Helping them reach the last 16 in 1990, their exit on penalties to the Republic of Ireland served as a sign of things to come ahead 1994’s edition in the USA.
Entrusted with the captains armband during the 1994 World Cup, the then 29-year-old led by example from Romania’s opening group game against Colombia. Supplying two assists for Florian Raducioiu, the game would forever be remembered for Hagi’s stunning strike, lobbing Colombia’s Oscar Cordoba from all of 40 yards as that piece of individual brilliance helped Anghel Iordanescu’s side to a 3-1 victory.
While Hagi would grab another goal in their next game against Switzerland, even his brilliance couldn’t help Romania avoid a 4-1 thumping. Although their despondency would soon be short-lived, as a 1-0 win in their final Group A game against tournament hosts USA meant Romania qualified for the knockout stages in top spot.
Upon reaching the last 16 however, Hagi and co. would be pitted against South American giants Argentina, a nation that had reached three of the previous four World Cup finals prior to 1994, winning two of them. The most daunting of occasions however have a habit of bringing out the very best in players, which is something that Hagi would testify after an outstanding display in Los Angeles’ Rose Bowl.
Despite the absence of Maradona, who was dealing with his own personal issues, the crowd in attendance on July 3rd bared witness to a world class performance by a diminutive number ten captaining their nation, although it was Hagi this time taking Romania to Carpathian-like heights.
In a battle under the harsh Californian heat, it was already 1-1 after goals from Ilie Dumitrescu and a Gabriel Batistuta penalty before Hagi began to become a key protagonist of the game. Roaming wherever he felt he could do the most damage, the maverick talent produced a defence-splitting pass into the path of an onrushing Dumitrescu, who finished for his and Romania’s second with just under 20 minutes gone, a lead that they would see through to half time.
If Romania’s goal advantage had surprised their illustrious opponents, then events in the 58th minute would leave the Albiceleste stunned. With Argentina chasing an equaliser, a swift Romanian coutner attack was profoundly finished off by a powerful drive by Hagi from the edge of the area for a 3-1 advantage.
While Abel Babo’s goal 15 minutes from time set up a tense finish, Romania stood firm to reduce it to nothing more than scant consolation. Once Pierluigi Pairetto’s whistle sounded at full time, it signalled history being made on the pitch as the little-fancied Romania reached the World Cup quarter finals for the first time in their history, led superbly by their Regele – the King.
Hagi himself spoke humbly after the game to try and summarise the magnitude of Romania’s accomplishment, stating: “We showed we’re not a group of individuals, we all play as a team, which is what football’s about. No doubt about it, we’re talking about the biggest win in the history of Romanian football.”
The fairy tale, however, would soon reach its conclusion in the quarter finals, as penalties would prove to be Romania’s downfall once again, this time ousted by fellow surprise package Sweden, ending a World Cup that truly encapsulated the true talent of Hagi.
Compared against his countless individual honours and trophies won throughout his career, all that seems to pale to insignificance when reflecting on the scale of Romania’s 1994 World Cup, spearheaded by their own Maradona, with his inclusion into the tournament’s All Star XI an appropriate consolation prize.
Now with his playing career behind him, Hagi’s influence on Romanian football is still as prevalent as ever, founding the team Viitorul Constanta in 2009 and evening putting in €10m of his own money to fund the project that he oversees as owner and manager. Stating that: “I took a lot of risks but I did it because of the immense passion I have for football”, Hagi now has a thriving youth academy and first Romanian league title won in the 2016/17 season.
A man synonymous with the 1994 World Cup especially, Hagi gave Romania their decade in the sun during the 1990’s, although by the looks of things, his work with Romanian football is far from over, saying: “I had a great career as a player and I’m very happy with what I achieved but this is the second part. My mission now is to help others achieve their dreams, in football and in life.”
It’s rather apt that Hagi is shaping the dreams of Romania’s future, after he allowed a nation to dream almost 15 years ago.